Local innovation, international impact: SMEs and the ITU Telecom World Awards

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(ITU, 2017)

What connects a group of young Rwandans building an app-based platform to manage data in schools with a new Japanese technology regenerating lead-acid batteries? Or a Danish solar-powered base station solution with a content delivery network and free Wifi connectivity platform from Kenya?

They are all small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) working with ICT to improve lives and build businesses. They are all high-growth, scalable initiatives driven by passionate and talented individuals who have seen a social need and developed a niche solution. And they are all former finalists in the ITU Telecom World Awards.

The Awards programme is a central pillar of ITU Telecom World, the UN’s most influential tech event bringing together government, industry and development organizations from around the world to exhibit, network and debate. Since 2015, the event has widened its platform to focus on the growth of international tech SMEs through capacity-building, exchanging knowledge, and exploring partnership and investment potential.

Tech SMEs have a unique role to play in the digital economy – as a major driver of growth, creating jobs, accelerating innovation and increasing demand for and uptake of ICT services.

Small businesses have enormous potential to open new markets, creating disruptive solutions, value and scale much faster than bigger corporate players.

The ongoing fundamental shift in technologies, user behaviour and business models in the ICT sector, in particular the explosive growth of mobile broadband and the Internet, has fed into and powered the rise of tech SMEs, moving the locus of innovation from the centre to the edge of the network. Local entrepreneurs anywhere in the world with connectivity and capacity can innovate with maximum effect.

The key word here is local. Local practices, local solutions, local expertise for local challenges and local realities. The global ICT industry is no longer populated by corporates alone, but is also increasingly driven by small-scale development on the ground.

Supporting local development, digital entrepreneurs and tech SMEs throughout the world is therefore critical to not only address local challenges, but also to power growth in the ICT industry, bring online more and more of the 52% of the global population that remain unconnected, share the benefits of the digital economy, and enable social and economic development.

“Home-grown technology companies like BRCK, based in Nairobi, provide some of the best solutions to local problems,” according to Erik Hersman, CEO of BRCK, a Kenyan firm offering innovative connectivity solutions in a variety of local contexts, including tracking vehicles at airports, connecting students in off-grid schools and bringing free public WiFi to ordinary Africans.

BRCK won the ITU Telecom World Global SME in 2016 – and has seen a hugely positive impact on its business in terms of exposure, media coverage and key leads. The company has now deployed in over 15 countries, is talking to governments about major roll outs, and is working hard to make internet connectivity available to the more than 800 million unconnected in Africa.

As an important part of ITU Telecom World’s support programme for SMEs, the Awards offer finalists visibility on a global stage, access to highly relevant key potential partners, peer networking and UN credibility for their solutions. And BRCK are not the only ones to benefit.

Rwandan startup Academic Bridge entered the Awards with its app-based platform to collect, process, analyse and manage data in schools – and found the contact with experts, advisors and potential investors invaluable. Winning the Thematic Award for Education also brought the less tangible, but arguably more important, prize of visibility and credibility. As a result, Academic Bridge has increased its presence from 13 to 42 schools, including expansion into three countries outside Rwanda, growing and adapting technology and features to meet the differing requirements of an increased client base.

In the words of Mariam Muganga of Academic Bridge: “In the life of a startup, every founder wishes their story to be heard, wants their business to be trusted to grow; winning the Award makes all that possible. And you get to be heard by different potential people that feed you with great insights that can forever change you and your business.”

Bluetown, the Danish developers of an affordable and sustainable way of connecting the unconnected through a solar-powered base station, have also benefited concretely from the leads generated at the event, in particular through direct contact with decision-takers and policy makers in African governments. Bluetown will be back at ITU Telecom World 2017 speaking in a forum debate on new approaches to connectivity – drawing on their experience of providing easy, inexpensive access to local clouds through a WiFi hotspot of up to one kilometre in distance, connected to the internet over existing infrastructure such as microwave links, fibre, satellite balloons or drones.

The ITU Telecom World Awards are turning the spotlight onto local solutions and unexplored potential that can be scalable, replicable and solve global socio-economic problems. By breaking down silos, encouraging new partnerships with SMEs, and enabling valuable connections throughout the ICT ecosystem, the event both recognises the importance of this sector in creating innovative, sustainable social impact, and works actively to support it.

ITU Telecom World 2017 takes place in Busan, Republic of Korea, from 25 – 28 September – and the deadline for applications for the ITU Telecom World Awards is fast approaching!

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